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Friday, 20 May 2016

Reading List - John Conomos on Robert Ryan

If you are a Robert Ryan fan, as I am, there is an engrossing review-article by David Bromwich of J.R.Jones' new biography The Lives of Robert Ryan in the London Review of Books, February 18, 2016. In fact, Bromwich's article which is titled "Why do you make me do it ? ", a title that goes to the core of the brutal, hardened, paranoiac and vulnerable characters he specialised in, and perhaps one of the talismanic lines in Ryan's entire film career and emanating from one of the actor's finest memorable performances in Nick Ray's aptly named On Dangerous Ground (USA, 1950), is also predicated on both Jones' biography and a recent retrospective series at the Anthology Film Archives in New York which screened several of Ryan's films under the title of "An Actor's Actor."
Ryan, who began acting at the age of thirty seven years old, according to Jones, said of his own oeuvre, on an occasion late in his life when he was awarded a plaque by the City of Los Angeles that celebrated his 80th film, and, of course, the deservedly belated recognition of his work, said of his films the following : " Eighty pictures. And seventy of them were dogs. I mean dogs." We who value Ryan's abundant expressive, commanding, insightful and poetically volatile gifts and subtleties as an actor, especially his roles where he played the outsider, are ever so grateful for these 'dogs' of his. Right across Ryan's oeuvre we are deeply appreciative of his sustained brilliance as an actor (both film and stage) that shine in so many key gems of classical Hollywood cinema.
Whether it is significantly a film noir like Crossfire (Edward Dmytryk, USA,1947), Caught (Max Ophuls, USA, 1949). The Set -Up (Robert Wise, USA, 1949, On Dangerous Ground and The Racket (John Cromwell, USA, 1951), a western like The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann, USA, 1953) or The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, USA,1969) or a war film like Men In War (1957) or whatever genre you care to name, Ryan excelled in it. Having worked with some of the most important directors in Hollywood - Nicholas Ray, Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir, Samuel Fuller and Anthony Mann - Ryan was happiest working with Mann.
John Houseman, in his memoir "Front and Centre", writes how he offered Ryan the lead role in a 1953 New York production of Shakespeare's "Coriolanus' and spoke of Ryan's magnetic and subtle talent in these following terms : " He was a black Irishman , an athlete in his youth, a disturbing mixture of anger and tenderness who had reached stardom by playing the most brutal, neurotic roles that were at variance with his true nature."
Jessica Cadwalader & Robert Ryan
It is precisely this combustible mixture of anger and tenderness that is salient to Ryan's distinctive kinetic, introspective and sadistic dramaturgical talent which lights up the silver screen, time and again, whatever role he played. And yet, Bromwich perceptively points  out, Ryan lived in North Hollywood for some time in the 1940s and he  would often meet angry young men who returned from the war and never quite grew reconciled to the life that come after the war." Ryan himself was such a person who lived in North Hollywood. In the late 1940s,he kept himself apart from the rest of his Hollywood peers not only by living in that part of town, but, as a progressive liberal democrat and influenced by his Quaker wife Jessica Cadwalader, a mystery and children's author, they opened up a progressive school "Oakwood" in their backyard dedicated to their particular views on child -rearing and education.
In the early 1950s Ryan wrote a 20 page letter addressed to his children about his early Chicago childhood and well - to - do family and how his father (a Democratic Party machine committee man) and his four brothers had operated a successful construction company specialising in sewer tunnels and street paving. Though the company suffered during the stock market crash of 1929. Ryan's family managed to survive it. The letter itself was unearthed by his daughter in the mid 2000s, and ironically just like the film noir icon with secrets that he was on the screen, in real life Ryan also had a few about his Chicago childhood.

As late as 1973, the year Ryan died of lung cancer at the relatively early age of 63, he appeared in John Flynn's taut crime thriller The Outfit , based on a Richard Stark ( aka Donald Westlake ) novel of the same name, and it is a fitting film reminding us of the extraordinary rich legacy he had left us as an actor especially in film noir. He was one of the form's most iconically refined and powerful performers. At six-foot and  four inches Ryan was a towering figure in more than in one critical sense. In life Ryan was notoriously shy , private , and yes, moody at times, but always giving, striving , as someone who believed in creating his art on the enduing empathetic understanding that inside this world. to quote Paul Eluard, there is another world.

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